THE Baillieu government has been accused of trying to avoid parliamentary scrutiny as committees designed to hold it to account are left barely functioning.
Nanjing Night Net

Six upper house committees were set up with bipartisan support under the Brumby government two years ago to review legislation and probe the inner workings of departments and policies.

But Labor and Greens say the taxpayer-funded “Senate-style” system has become a joke, while some of Premier Ted Baillieu’s MPs privately admit the groups are not functioning the way they should because they have barely enough work to do.

“The role of these committees was to provide scrutiny of government, and of government departments and agencies, but this simply is not happening,” said upper house deputy president and Labor MP Matt Viney, who also chairs one of the groups. “They have almost no work to do and are only called together to provide an opportunity for the government to close down the parliamentary sitting week on a Wednesday night. It’s a joke.”

The eight-member upper house committees cover three broad areas: economy and infrastructure; environment and planning; and legal and social issues. Three of the groups are meant to review government legislation; the other three are meant to be given references to look at issues relating to policies and initiatives across different portfolios.

But some say the committees are merely being used as an excuse to stop parliamentary debate on Wednesday nights: under house rules, if any of them meets, the rest of the MPs in the Legislative Council can go home. Often, they do.

Others have described the process as a waste of resources: while federal Senate committees take on dozens of inquiries each year, only one of the six Victorian committees currently has a reference to keep it busy. Parliamentary records show that more than a dozen requests for bills to be thoroughly scrutinised by a committee have also been rejected by the government since it came to office.

Despite the criticism, the government’s upper house leader, David Davis, insisted the committees had done some good work, pointing out that when Labor controlled the upper house, “there were no meaningful inquiries whatsoever”.

For instance, an inquiry looking at people who open car doors in the path of cyclists recommended raising the maximum fine in Victoria. Another inquiry into organ donations suggested a statewide review of resources, including giving donors taxpayer-funded subsidies to help cover expenses such as travel, accommodation and loss of income. “I think the committees in their first term have covered a remarkable spread of important inquiries . . . and they will all have work to do [in the future],” Mr Davis said.

Upper house president and Liberal MP Bruce Atkinson said while the committees could serve a useful purpose, “I don’t believe they are meeting the expectations that members had when they were established”.

Labor MP Jaala Pulford, who chairs the infrastructure and economy references committee was more scathing, accusing the Premier of treating Parliament’s house of review “like a poorly funded rubber stamp”.

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